Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Ron Forthofer on the ASA's Divestment Resolution


That we - Jews - were victims of genocide in tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany shapes the project of Israel. But this project, glaringly today in the Occupied Territories, echoes the oppression we suffered.

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The American Studies Association, certainly not a group of people unfamiliar with or unsympathetic to the victims of the Holocaust, supports the nonviolent Palestinian boycott to resist Israeli Occupation. Those who raise a hullabaloo at any mention that Palestinians are human or, for instance, that their rights of academic freedom have long been suffocated by the state of Israel attack this resolution.

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Occupation, as Judith Butler stresses (see the letter from Trinity Professors below), interdicts freedom of movement for faculty members and hence, academic freedom.

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Further, it is ironic that this hullabaloo is raised, in the false name of alleging new crimes against that Jews, by those who are committing ethnic cleansing for an illegal and immoral "Greater Israel" and a "Jewish" (Jews-only as in the Shahudah street in Hebron, see here) against the Palestinians. This point is underlined in Ron Forthofer's fine letter to the Colorado Daily.

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In addition, a number of University Presidents signed an uninformed (partisan in the sense of blowhard) document condemning the ASA resolution. Professors at Trinity College wrote a serious answer to them, mocking the straw quality, in terms of evidence and responding to argument, of the assertions.

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Long ago, I signed the first "We won't go" statement about Vietnam. It was not given wide publicity in the corporate press. In contrast, vapid statements by war supporters including University Presidents, trying to cover up American aggression and dismissive of the persons of resistors - no attempt was made to answer arguments, were, of course, widely covered.

But the "We Won't Go" statement is true to this day and admirable. The latter documents are platitudinous or lying, in bad faith (done for the money's sake,i.e. out of concern, by University Presidents, for fund-raising, not for the truth), and luckily forgotten.

This will also be the case with the long-deliberated American Studies Association resolution and the University Presidents' statement against it.

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Interestingly, the ASA resolution itself isn't reprinted in much of the publicity, but an earlier version of it - indicating how the boycott is in defense of academic freedom - is below.

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"Here is a letter I just submitted to the Colorado Daily in response to a piece by Michael Roth re the ASA resolution.

Ron"

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"Israeli violations of human rights and academic freedom

by Ron Forthofer

Michael Roth recently attacked the American Studies Association over its resolution calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Roth called the resolution a "repugnant attack on academic freedom, declaring academic institutions off-limits because of their national affiliation."

However, academic freedom refers to safeguarding legitimate rights of faculty members. Roth appeared to miss the point that the ASA boycott refers specifically to Israeli academic institutions, not to individual faculty. If Roth were really concerned about academic freedom though, one would think his article would have challenged the decades of blatant Israeli violations of the academic freedom of Palestinians.

Thus Roth's article seems more like an attempt to divert attention from Israeli violations of human rights and international law than a true concern about academic freedom. A few examples of Israeli crimes include its: building illegal colonies in the West Bank; destroying Palestinian homes; limiting Palestinian travel; deporting Palestinians; closing Palestinian schools for long periods; killing civilians; and bombing civilian targets such as sanitation and other utility plants, schools, mosques and hospitals.

Palestinians see the U.S. sponsored so-called peace negotiations as a cover for the continuing theft of their land and creating more illegal Israeli settlements. Therefore, Palestinians finally called for a BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement to help reach a nonviolent resolution of this grossly unequal conflict.

The Palestinian call and our enabling role in the ongoing Israeli crimes led to the ASA boycott resolution. Hopefully other associations will finally end their shameful silence about this oppressive occupation and join the BDS movement..

Some claim Israel is being unfairly singled out. However Israel is often singled out for special attention. For example, the U.S. abets and/or tolerates Israeli crimes. The U.S. also gives several billions of dollars annually to Israel as well as preventing any UN sanctions against Israel for its crimes.

Note that many critics of the ASA resolution are the ones really committing a repugnant attack on academic freedom. These people are trying to have funding withheld from the ASA and, through intimidation and threats, to silence these courageous academics who took a moral position.

In closing, some of these critics are also concerned that the BDS movement will successfully challenge Israel's legitimacy. They fail to see that Israeli violations of human rights and international law challenge its legitimacy.

For more info, see http://mondoweiss.net/2013/12/resolution-institutions-supporting.html."

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"PROPOSED RESOLUTION ON ACADEMIC BOYCOTT OF ISRAELI ACADEMIC INSTITUITIONS

Sponsor: ASA Caucus on Academic and Community Activism

Whereas the American Studies Association is an organization dedicated to the preservation and support of academic freedom and of the right to education for peoples the world over;

and

Whereas the United Nations has reported that the current Israeli occupation of Palestine has impacted students “whose development is deformed by pervasive deprivations affecting health, education and overall security”;

and

Whereas Palestinian universities and schools have been periodically forced to close as a result of actions related to the Occupation, or have been destroyed by Israeli military strikes, and Palestinian students and scholars face restrictions on movement and travel that limit their ability to attend and work at universities, travel to conferences and to study abroad, and thereby obstruct their right to education;

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Whereas the Israeli state and Israeli universities directly and indirectly impose restrictions on education, scholarships, and participation in campus activities on Palestinian students in Israel;

and

Whereas Israel imposes severe restrictions on foreign academics seeking to attend conferences and do research in Palestine as well as on scholars of Palestinian origin who wish to travel to Israel-Palestine;

and

Whereas Israeli institutions of higher education have not condemned or taken measures to oppose the Occupation and racial discrimination against Palestinians in Israel, but have, rather, been directly and indirectly complicit in the systematic maintenance of the Occupation and of policies and practices that discriminate against Palestinian students and scholars throughout Palestine and Israel;

and

Whereas Israeli academic institutions are deeply complicit in Israel's violations of international law and human rights and in its denial of the right to education and academic freedom to Palestinians, in addition to their basic rights as guaranteed by international law.

and

Whereas the American Studies Association seeks to promote academic exchange, collaboration and opportunities and supports the right to education and academic freedom for students and scholars everywhere;

Be it resolved that the American Studies Association endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Be it also resolved that the ASA supports the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine and in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

For more information, please see http://www.usacbi.org"

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"Open Letter to Trinity College President and Dean
http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/15772/open-letter-to-trinity-college-president-and-dean

[[The following open letter was issued by the below signatories, all of whom are faculty at Trinity College and are writing in response to recent statement by the college's president and dean vis-a-vis the American Studies Association's recent decision to boycott Israeli academic institutions in accordance with the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel. Other college presidents who have come out openly against the ASA include Boston University, Brown University, Cornell University, Dickinson College, Duke University, George Washington University, Hamilton College, Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Michigan State University, New York University, Princeton University, Smith College, Stanford University, Tufts University, Tulane University, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, University of Chicago, University of Connecticut, University of Kansas, University of Maryland - Baltimore County and College Park, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, University of Texas-Austin, USC, Washington University, Willamette University, and Yale University.

The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations has called on university presidents to publicly drop all support of the ASA. The Conference has hosted these public rejections on its website in an attempt to place pressure upon the ASA.]

James F. Jones, Jr., President, Trinity College.
Thomas Mitzel, Dean, Trinity College.
January 2014

Dear President Jones and Dean Mitzel,

We received your letter by accident. It was sent to one of us after it was sent off to the American Studies Association (ASA). No announcement was made to the faculty prior to the letter going out, and so no discussion was permitted. The letter–which is below–condemns the ASA for its resolution on Israel. It is also found on the website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, as part of a campaign by that body to undermine the ASA.

Many of us who are signing this letter are members of the ASA, proudly so, and several of us voted on behalf of that resolution that you chose to condemn in your letter. We believe that your letter is wrong-headed for several reasons. Some of these are detailed below:

(1) Your letter is singularly uninformed:

One of the tired mantras of the Anti-Defamation League is to say that Israel is the “only democracy in the Middle East.” This is a factually challenged statement. You seem to neglect at least two countries–Lebanon and Turkey–that are formal democracies. In the region, as well, there are monarchical democracies such as Kuwait and Morocco, with Jordan not far behind. Surely these are not so different from the monarchical democracies of Europe that would not earn a similar sneer (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom for example). We do not hold any water for monarchical democracies, but the double standard is remarkable.

The use of this statement reveals how little effort was used to write this important position taken by the President and Dean of Trinity College. Or else you are of the view taken by Princeton’s doyen of Orientalism Bernard Lewis, that Arabs are somehow not capable of democracy–and that even where there is electoral democracy, this is simply a mirage. As an antidote to this view, we recommend Larbi Sadiki’s The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (2004) and the volume Democracy in the Arab World edited by Ibrahim Elbadawi and Samir Makdisi (2011).

Democracy should not be reduced entirely to elections. It has to be seen in a wider context. For instance, the Israeli system has disenfranchised the totality of occupied Palestinians and has reduced the democratic rights of Palestinian Arabs who live in Israel (in other words, Palestinians who live in Israel and hold its passport have lesser rights in practice). We recommend for your reading the reports from the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and from B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. If you are interested in these issues, we strongly recommend you read the new UN report, Report of the Special Committee to Investigate Israeli Practices Affecting the Human Rights of the Palestinian People and Other Arabs of the Occupied Territories (13 November 2013). This has to be part of any discussion of “democracy in the Middle East.” At the same time, in the context of the Arab Spring, as vibrant attempts to create political democracy continue across the Middle East, your comment sounds tone deaf.

(2) Your letter is intellectually lazy:

The debate over the ASA’s resolution began in 2007, and was heightened over the past six months. The discussion about boycotts and academic freedom took center stage in the debate. The level of intellectual conversation on these themes was sophisticated and of great interest. Your letter avoids the fine-grained conversation and returns to clichéd denunciations. We would encourage you to read at least a few of the essays that offer the case for the ASA position and show that academic freedom is not violated. The best debate was held in the American Association of University Professor’s journal, Journal of Academic Freedom, vol. 4 (2013), edited by Ashley Dawson; to us Princeton historian Joan Scott’s essay, “Changing My Mind About the Boycott” is a good place to begin. But the debate is an old one. The philosopher Judith Butler offered a scrupulous analysis of the idea of academic freedom and the boycott strategy in 2006 (“Israel-Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom” Radical Philosophy, vol. 135 (January-February 2006) It would have been a useful gesture to have read up on the debate and engaged it with some authority. As it is, your letter returns to the first utterance when the campaign for an academic boycott was proposed by Palestinian and Israeli scholars in 2005–there is no engagement with the long debate as it has unfolded over the past decade.

What is doubly disappointing is that you had a front-row seat a few years ago when Vijay Prashad’s appointment to lead an institution at the college was attacked by the ADL and faculty on campus–at that time Vijay had engaged President Jones in a discussion about academic boycotts in his role as member of the advisory board for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. On your faculty you have several people–Raymond Baker, a former Dean, and Johnny Williams, for instance–who have worked concertedly on issues of justice for Palestinians. None of this seems to have in any way troubled the tired language of your letter. At the very least, there might have been recognition that this is a long-standing discussion and not an impetuous decision by the ASA as you suggest. It behoves intellectual leaders who speak for academic freedom to at the very least take the ideas seriously. That is what the ASA did, which is why it hosted a long period of debate and discussion.

(3) Your letter ignores the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians:

In her essay mentioned above, Judith Butler lays out a broad understanding of academic freedom:

a. The new formulation of an academic-freedom argument that insists that academic freedom requires and consists in the workable material infrastructure of educational institutions and the ability to travel without impediment and without harassment to educational sites; by linking academic freedom to the right to be free from violent threats and arbitrary detentions and delays, one would effectively be saying that the very idea of academic freedom makes no sense and its exercise is foreclosed by the conditions of Occupation. This would be a way of affirming that academic freedom is essentially linked with other kinds of protections and rights and cannot be separated out from them.

b. When academic freedom becomes a question of abstract right alone, we miss the opportunity to consider how academic freedom debates more generally–and here I would include both pro- and anti-boycott debates–deflect from the broader political problem of how to address the destruction of infrastructure, civil society, cultural and intellectual life under the conditions of the Occupation. As much as rights, considered as universal, have to be imagined transculturally and transpolitically, they also bring with their assertion certain geopolitical presuppositions, if not geopolitical imaginaries, that may not be at all appropriate for the situation at hand.

Your letter notes that Trinity participates in the very important Rescue Scholar program–the program that funds scholars from parts of the world who feel threatened in their workplaces or whose political views deny them academic work. This is a laudable effort, and as you know many of us have been major supporters of it.

A study of the academic situation in Occupied Palestinian lands might have you reconsider your smug statement that “it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons.” As a warm up to understand the situation of academic freedom in Israel, we recommend you read Ilan Pappé’s Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (2010). Ilan used to teach at the University of Haifa, in the city of his birth in 1954, but was hounded out in 2007 when the President of his college called for his removal based on his support of the academic boycott campaign–a campaign that is illegal according to Israeli law (so much for academic freedom, by the way). Ilan now teaches, virtually as a Rescue Scholar, at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom.

If matters are hard for Israeli academics who wish to put their views against the Occupation on record, matters are worse for Palestinians and those who teach in Palestinian universities. Once more we recommend that you read a few of the publically available reports:

Gisha: Legal Center for Freedom of Movement, “Obstacle Course: Students Denied Exit from Gaza,” July 2009.
Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, “Students from Gaza: Disregarded Victims of Israel’s Siege of the Gaza Strip. A Report on Israel’s Prevention of Gazan Students from Studying at the West Bank Universities,” July 2010.
The materials amassed by the Right to Education campaign at Birzeit University, a college that has been under siege for the past decade (http://right2edu.birzeit.edu/).
Ruhan Nagra, Academia Undermined: Israeli Restrictions on Foreign National Academics in Palestinian Higher Education Institutions, May 2013.

Your silence on this deep attack on the rights of Palestinians to an education indicates that the principle that motivates your letter is not academic freedom. If it were, you would certainly have expressed your concern about the violation of the academic freedom of an entire population since at least 1967. What principle you are upholding is up to you to establish. An indication might come from your failed attempt to suborn the American Studies faculty at Trinity to break their institutional linkage to the ASA; having failed with the faculty, you ignored them and claimed to speak as if there is not a rich seam of disagreement on our campus on this issue.

Your letter does not surprise us. In 2007, without a discussion in the faculty, President Jones signed on to an American Jewish Committee advertisement in the New York Times with the inflammatory tag line, “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours, Too!” We suspect it says a great deal about the state of US academia and its democratic traditions that presidents can speak for a college or university without the minimal courtesy of consultation of the faculty, staff, students and alumni. The signing of the 2007 letter to the Times, this letter–these are political acts by a college administration that are disguised as acts of high principle.

That you have written this letter shows that the resolution of the ASA has had some effect–it has forced a conversation about the denial of the rights to full education of our Palestinian colleagues, about the impunity granted to Israeli institutions by the complicity in the US as well as the active financial, military and diplomatic support by the US government for the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians. That your letter does not seriously engage any of the issues–even academic freedom still less the actual occupation–is a sign of the lack of seriousness on your part. We look forward to a more robust discussion. As it is, you did not speak in our name–also members of the Trinity College community–when you wrote this ill-advised letter to the ASA President.

Sincerely,

1. Andrea Dyrness, Associate Professor of Educational Studies.
2. Anne Lambright, Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies.
3. Dario Euraque, Professor of History and International Studies.
4. Davarian L. Baldwin, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies.
5. David Cruz-Uribe, Professor of Mathematics.
6. Drew Hyland, Charles A. Dana Professor of Philosophy.
7. Garth A. Myers, Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of Urban International Studies.
8. Gary Reger, Hobart Professor of Classical Languages.
9. Janet Bauer, Associate Professor of International Studies.
10. Jeffrey Bayliss, Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of History.
11. Johnny E. Williams, Associate Professor of Sociology.
12. Luis Figueroa, Associate Professor of History.
13. Maurice Wade, Professor of Philosophy.
14. Paul Lauter, Allan K. & Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature and past president of the American Studies Association (1998).
15. Raymond William Baker, College Professor of International Politics and Chair, Middle East Studies Program.
16. Robert J. Corber, William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor in American Institutions and Values.
17. Seth Sanders, Associate Professor of Religious Studies.
18. Stephen M. Valocchi, Professor of Sociology.
19. Thomas Harrington, Associate Professor of Language and Culture Studies.
20. Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian Studies and Professor of International Studies.
21. Zayde Antrim, Charles A. Dana Research Associate Professor of History and International Studies and Director, International Studies Program.

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